A very social network

Saturday, 01 January, 2011

I've been thinking about social media and social networking for a while, and have wanted to write something—particularly after my post on recognition hunger and some of the responses it generated (for example, Rachel's). But I realise it's a massive topic, and that what I want to say here may be quite disjointed and rambly, with some serious omissions (e.g. privacy: I'm not going to talk about that at all). I think (and I apologise for the whole rambling-and-working-stuff-out-as-I-write nature of this)—I think the thing I am interested in the most is the aspect of relationship when it comes to social media. Yes, that's a good starting point; let's go from there.

Made for relationship

If you were to think theologically about social media (a practice drummed into me from my years of working on The Briefing), you'd have to start with Genesis 1:27 and the fact that we are made in God's image—a relational God who is Trinity: three persons in one who are in eternal and perfect relationship with one another. (I realise I am dealing with this weighty subject far too briefly and flippantly as a whole book could be written about it, but there you go; this is a blog post, not a theological treatise. Apologies.) God is relational, so we are relational. We can't help but need each other.

Furthermore, we can't help but be interested in each other. Social media capitalises upon that. At the 2010 Web 2.0 Summit, Mark Zuckerberg commented how he and his company were surprised at the popularity of the Photos application in Facebook—especially because it's quite rudimentary compared to photosharing giants like Flickr and Picasa, which feature things like tagging and geotagging, and which have handy resources with which to print your photos on greeting cards, calendars and gift books. People really like the social aspect of Facebook Photos, so then other sites starting following suit. We're made in the image of a relational God, so we're driven to relate to one another.

However, total depravity usually stuffs things up. We are sinful creatures, and our sinfulness has a nasty habit of marring and destroying relationships. This is what makes social media trying and frustrating at times.

With Jesus' death on the cross ushering his people into a new way of living, cleansed from their sin and redeemed for his purposes, this paves the way for Christian attempts to behave online in a way pleasing to God—to love thy virtual neighbour and be faithful in the (online and offline) relationships he has given us.

The virtual vs. IRL

I think the fact that we are relational beings feeds the present (appearance of) ubiquity of social media. People like being social, and as social media makes it so easy (as opposed to other media, like creating your own webpage where the bar to code HTML and come up with your own design is a little high. [Yes, I know there are tools and sites to help you do it, but if you were starting from scratch, it's not easy. Even figuring out how to use Blogspot/WordPress/LiveJournal can be tricky])—and as social media makes it easy, more and more people are jumping on board. Obviously Facebook has the lion's share of the pie, but Twitter is gaining ground (even as MySpace is losing it), and there are a whole host of more niche sites that seem to hold their own—FourSquare (which lets you see where your friends are in the real world), Last FM (for music), Listal (for music, books and movies), LibraryThing (for books), Ravelry (for knitting and crochet), and so on. More and more sites are turning social, leading to social overload. On the flip side, Facebook is turning up on non-Facebook sites with “Like” buttons, news feed integration and the like.

Something that I've said a lot (but not necessarily on this blog; I can't remember) is that people tend towards certain communication technologies that suit their relational style. Some people are phone people. Some people are email people. Some people are SMS people. Some people are IM people. (This is why it's a bit daft to say to someone, “You should start a blog” or “You should join Facebook”, and give as your reason, “I've got a blog/I'm on Facebook/I tweet, and I enjoy it because …” ergo the other person should like it too; the question is more, “Does the technology suit you?” Unfortunately you won't know that until you try it.) Now more people are social network people because social networking encompasses and utilises so many of those communication technologies within their own frameworks. For example, within Facebook, you can email, IM, blog and microblog, and comment.

Compared to other communication technologies, however, social media is closer to mimicking real life—i.e. the way we relate in person. It's not exactly the same (as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his piece on social activism in The New Yorker), but that doesn't mean it's fake either (as this Salon piece responding to Gladwell points out and this story of a man who made friends on Twitter and then died makes clear). (All that raises another question about whether relationships forged online can translate across into the real world, but let's save that for another time …)

However, obviously it's not exactly the same. There aren't the subtleties and levels of relationship; Facebook, for example, calls everyone your “friend”, even if they're just your casual acquaintance or someone you met at a party last November. Even if you are good friends and interact a lot online, Facebook doesn't necessarily make you pop up in each other's news feeds automatically (this article on how Facebook decides what to put in your feed is a fascinating read), and if you don't see a person in your feed, it's almost like they don't exist for you in the online world. Furthermore, if you are unfriended or unfollowed (Twitter), despite the user's best intentions, it can come across as meaning “I don't want to have a relationship with you”—never mind that it's “I don't want to have a relationship with you online”.

Furthermore, because of the lack of subtlety in differing relationships (meaning that what your friends see is the same as what your boss sees or what your family sees), this means that we tend to rub each other up the wrong way online. A classic example of this is the backlash against parents who continually post intimate details concerning their offspring—from what they did today to the features of their droppings. Other parents find this fascinating; non-parents do not. (But side note: one of the lovely things about social media is that it alleviates some of the isolation that motherhood in the modern age brings.)

There is no standard for social media etiquette (despite what the rabble claim. Another side note: the rabble's comments on what a blog should and should not be on The Sola Panel are rather curious). Contrary to what the members of different generation think, what constitutes politeness and what constitutes rudeness differ according to the individuals involved. (Remember, tone is harder to pick up in writing than in speech.) Since social media mimics real life, of course we're going to get annoyed at each other and rub each other up the wrong way; we should expect it and bear with each other as per Ephesians 4:2. There is no such thing as perfect human communication; Babel shows us that.


So sinfulness and lack of audience distinction causes us to rub each other up the wrong way on social media. What I find astounding is how judgemental it can make us. If you update too much, you must be self-centred and attention seeking. (Indeed, one of my Facebook friends implied that once or twice a day was the uppermost limit that one ought to update one's status.) If you do a lot on social media (not just updating your status, but also commenting on other people's updates and playing games), people think you do nothing but hang out online all day. If you talk too much about one thing (e.g. NCIS), people threaten to unfollow you, or they go out of their way to tell you that they're ignoring you for a little while because they can't hack it.

It should be said that such comments are subjective and reflect a user's experience; they are not an indication of how you're going measured against some sort of yardstick of acceptable/unacceptable online behaviour. For example, the complaint of too many updates is subjective: a Twitter feed is a personally curated collection of tweets, and what is too many for you, may be just enough for me, depending on the number of people we both follow. The solution isn't tweeting less because tweeting once a day (as opposed to once an hour) still might be considered to be “too much” by someone. This is why I think it's near impossible to control others' perception of you on social media, so why try? Surely there are other ways (but that might be a subject for a whole other blog post).

Now I recognise that there are problems that are seemingly inherent with social media (Joshua Harris, for example, joined Facebook once, but the temptation to narcissism was too much for him, so he quit and blogged about it instead. Then his post was linked to throughout the Christian blogosphere as an example of some sort of biblical “wisdom”. I agree that the temptation to narcissism is there; I just don't think that abstaining is the solution that everyone should take—which was the implication at the time. Furthermore, social media does not have to be narcissistic; it can be about sharing. It's interesting that since then, both Joshua Harris and his followers have changed their thinking.) However, I hope we have moved beyond the sort of judgementalism concerning whether or not to adopt certain technologies—that technologies are “good” or “bad”; they aren't. The question is how we use them and what we use them for.


Except for obvious and blatant rudeness/trolling/defamation/insulting of others/perpetuation of sin, I don't think there is a “right” or a “wrong” way to use social media. I think there are grey areas that are a matter of wisdom and personality. In the rest of this post, please don't hear me saying, “You ought to use social media in this way”. Instead, what I want to do is talk about how I use it and why—lift the discussion out of the theoretical and the general to the concrete and the specific. And maybe that will give you some ideas for how you use it, but if it doesn't, that's completely fine.

It's always seemed to me that virtual relationships work best when they are an augment or extension to real ones. God has given us certain relationships in which to be faithful—spouse, family, co-workers, church, friends, and so on. In the past, time and geographical distance would temper some of those friendships, but now with the internet, the potential is there for you to keep up with everyone you've ever met. This can be good and bad—or rather, unhelpful and helpful. It's helpful (obviously) because it means that it's easy to remain in touch with the people you want to remain in touch with. It's unhelpful because now you're spreading yourself thin across too many relationships. What does relational faithfulness under God's sovereignty look like when you've got 500 Facebook “friends”? Does it mean devoting time and attention to each one?

The way I think of it, we are mortal creatures who have a limited capacity for relationship—as opposed to a divine God who has an infinite capacity for relationship. Perhaps upon Jesus' return and the final redemption and transformation of our bodies (as per 1 Corinthians 15) we too shall embrace the relational capacity of the divine (heaven, it seems to me, is the realisation of this—eternal and joyful relationship with God and his people—John 17:3 and Revelation 21:3).

But until then, I think it's okay to specialise and prioritise. You can choose to be selective about the people you interact with online. You don't have to follow everyone, and nor does everyone have to follow you. So what I do, for example, on Facebook is I create lists. At various times, I've had various lists (e.g. relatives, school friends, church friends, work colleagues), but at the moment, the one I use the most is an amalgamation of these. I've got about 50 people on it, and instead of reading my entire news feed, I filter the feed so that only those 50 people show up on it. Then I read that filtered feed regularly in order to keep up with, pray for and care for those people. I found it a much more concentrated way of doing things on Facebook because I found I kept missing things in the lives of the people I cared about most (e.g. pregnancies), whereas this way, I never miss an update, plus I get to interact with them more frequently.

The other thing I do on Facebook is use the new Groups app, which works a bit like a forum but only for select people. I've got a couple, but one of the ones that is proving unexpectedly useful and supportive is the one I created for all my friends who are parents/expectant parents. I use to ask any questions I have about any subject related to childrearing, as well as to share links. The group members (of which there are only 24) don't use it in quite the same way, which is fine, but they haven't left the group and are often very kind in helping me out/sharing their collective wisdom.

Twitter is a bit different. I'm lucky in that the majority of my close friends are on Twitter and that we have a little community going that is more or less free from the noise of more “secondary” relationships. Some of my Tweeps are the same as the people in my Facebook master list, which is fine as the two media are different and most of them post different things to each one. I feel that I interact more with them on Twitter than I do on Facebook (which keeps us from annoying other Facebook people). With Twitter, there's the mutual understanding that what we are doing is microblogging, whereas with Facebook, you don't get a sense of that sort of continuity from update to update. So the friends who follow me usually don't mind my constant tweeting (and if they do, they don't follow me and I don't count them among my closest friends). I find that with Twitter, I get more of a picture of how my friends are going than with Facebook, which helps me as I pray for them, care for them and interact with them—both on and offline.

That last point is really important: I said I'm not going to touch the issue of whether you can develop real relationships in the virtual world, however what I really want to say is that social media is just gold for maintaining and building up my existing relationships. I can't quantify it, but I'm pretty sure that my relationships with these friends have been enriched and deepened through our use of social media over the last couple of years that we've been using it. I realise that it's not like this for everyone, but I do want to say that it is possible—that perhaps utilising social media for the glory of God could, in fact, look like this in some small way.

For now, at least. Obviously, being social media, everything changes!


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Other comments

Very thought-provoking. Well done on your article, Karen smile

Posted by Elsie on 01 January, 2011 12:16 AM

Thanks for this, Karen. Lots of food for thought. I’m writing a session in mission and the Internet for CMSNSW SummerSchool and this has been really helpful.

Glad to hear it, Di! Thanks Elsie!

Good article!  And especially agree with your last point!

Brilliant work, Karen!  I found myself saying, ‘Amen” continually as I read through this post.

One thing about FB which has both puzzled and irked me is the lack of consistency between some people’s FB and ‘real life’ personalities.  People who in real life are quiet, polite and generally very friendly people turn into sarcastic, thoughtless chatterboxes on FB.  And this is not to do with their own statuses, rather I;ve been hurt by things they’ve written on MY status or wall - things they have never said in real life, but feel ok to say online.  Hiding behind their laptops perhaps?

Thanks Sarah! I too find that puzzling: you’d think that if you wouldn’t say something to someone in real life, you wouldn’t say it online.

Mind you, I know that I am different online than I am in person; people have told me I am. I don’t mean to be, but it could be that I am more comfortable online where it is easier to be heard than in person where I feel like I have to fight to have my words taken seriously.

A topic for another blog post, perhaps …


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